The worth of a college degree is often challenged. The latest examples? "The Social Network" biopic about college dropout and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, and the offer of PayPal cofounder Peter Thiel to give $100,000 to young "geniuses" not to go to college.
But one look at the unemployment rate for college graduates versus that for people with only a high school degree tells a different story.
College may be a waste of time and money for the one-in-a-million genius, but for everyone else, a college degree has never been more necessary – and more difficult to achieve.
American higher education is failing the country. It produces far too few college graduates (only about a third of young Americans go to college; even fewer graduate). That feeds a worrisome gap in income equality, and creates an ever-growing underclass – and jobless class – that is unprepared for an economy that demands postsecondary education.
One solution: Educators can make today's colleges and universities more productive and accessible if they think of them as a connected whole. On a small scale, for example, agreeing on even basic learning outcomes for majors and courses can cut down on "wasted" credits from transfers, save students millions of dollars, and bring more timely graduation.
When educators can confidently say, "A degree in X means a graduate has mastered the following things," then the country will see a dramatic improvement in useful, cost-efficient college degrees awarded to many more people.
Knowing with certainty that someone has mastered a discipline means it shouldn't matter how that person got there or what school they attended. At that point, traditional higher education's monopoly on delivery would end and America would see myriad new models and pro-viders of education.
For instance, the door would open even wider to online learning, not just at private universities, but on traditional, nonprofit campuses, such as mine in Manchester, N.H.
Our online programs allow working adults, those deployed in the military, and learners without access to traditional campuses to work on their college degrees, to do so at lower costs and on schedules that work for them. The success of these programs – our online students far outnumber our students on site – has in turn provided more scholarship support for students in the traditional campus programs while allowing us to keep costs down. We are the most affordable private university in our state and within our peer group.
The e-learning program here at Southern New Hampshire University – and others at Western Governors University, StraighterLine, and P2P University – still work on the margins of higher education. That is because entrenched and established players rarely lead the way into next-generation innovation.
But a shift to e-learning does not mean that blue-chip schools like Harvard and Brown are going away anytime soon. Research powerhouses like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Johns Hopkins and Stanford will continue their vital missions. Educating the elite, inventing the future, and simply providing a place at which to grow up will remain important functions of higher education.
But the triple challenge of providing access to higher education for millions more Americans while also offering lower costs and assuring quality will not be met by the existing bricks-and-mortar system.
To face those challenges, the United States needs policymakers and regulators to support the innovation under way and to make room, if only on the margins, for those inventing new pathways to success.
Just as it did with the GI Bill after World War II, America could once again put higher education within reach of millions who are shut out of the traditional system. And higher education could better contribute to America's need for well-trained workers in advanced industries.
Paul LeBlanc is president of Southern New Hampshire University in Manchester, N.H.